Magneto, played again by Michael Fassbender, shows up about halfway through Dark Phoenix, the latest and probably last movie featuring this particular big-screen iteration of the X-Men. The master of magnetism has given up the terrorist life, redirecting his energies (and powers) to the creation of a new mutant state, an island sanctuary for those like him. Of course, the moment he appears, he’s pulled right back into the drama of his lifelong frenemy, Charles Xavier (James McAvoy). “You’re always sorry, and there’s always a speech,” the helmeted heavy sneers at the professor. “But no one cares anymore.” It’s as relatable as this variably sympathetic supervillain has ever been. Twenty years and a dozen entries into a convoluted franchise, even he seems bored of X-Men movies.
They’re all pretty much the same, aren’t they? Even the good ones, like the propulsive X2 or the kicky-retro origin story First Class, feel like variations on a formula. This isn’t an issue with the source material; over half a century, Marvel’s X-universe has expanded to encompass intergalactic empires, a prehistoric jungle kingdom, mystical realms, even a gladiatorial reality-TV dimension ruled by a Jabba-like network tyrant. Little of that makes it into the movies. Instead we get lots of those Xavier speeches, and Magneto swapping allegiances, and some climactic showdown between the good mutants and the bad mutants, realized through some very uneven digital effects work. At some point, the X-Men may visit a quiet suburban street and blow up a house or some cop cars.
Dark Phoenix literally tells a story the series has told before. It’s the second multiplex take on the most celebrated X-Men arc of them all: Chris Claremont’s operatic “The Dark Phoenix Saga,” published over the better part of 1980. The last attempt to adapt that multi-month opus to the screen was 2006’s much-maligned X-Men: The Last Stand, so perhaps the franchise deserved a mulligan. Yet the studio has entrusted this second try to… the exact same screenwriter, Simon Kinberg, who’s also stepped behind the camera in the absence of original series director Bryan Singer. His Dark Phoenix is more thoughtful than The Last Stand, and certainly a more downbeat and introspective X-Men movie than the last one, the goofy and overlong Apocalypse. But it still remains locked down by a very limited idea of what an X-Men movie can be, and a very small vision of one of the most iconic epics in superhero fiction.
The hook of Claremont’s story was that classic comic-book dilemma of the superhero gone bad, and the moral crisis it creates for her teammates. Kinberg adopts the same angle, and faithfully kicks off his adaptation with an accident in space. Xavier and his X-Men have made great strides for mutant kind, altering public perception of their people by risking their lives for civilians. It’s during one such mission—a daring astronaut rescue operation—that team telepath Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) is nearly consumed by a cloud of cosmic energy. She doesn’t just survive; she walks away from the near-death experience with a newfound power coursing through her veins, à la Jeff Goldblum after going through the telepod in The Fly. But also like BrundleFly, she’s becoming something new and frightening: an uncontrollable force of nature whose dangerous outbursts, teased by little veins of light spreading across her skin, may be linked to the childhood trauma Xavier helped her suppress.
Kinberg’s most interesting dramatic choice is a critique of the professor, an idealist who’s effectively militarized his students, drafting them into a war for hearts and minds. (There’s a volatile scene between McAvoy and Nicholas Hoult, who reprises the brains-and-brawn role of Hank “The Beast” McCoy,” that counts as one of this franchise’s most prickly.) But Dark Phoenix resists its dark side; it’s especially skittish about the threat posed by its title character. Her transformation, too, remains somewhat vaguely clarified. If X-Men has often treated mutanthood like a metaphor for puberty, here the emergence of this new power becomes an expression of repressed emotion; Jean is “all desire, all rage, all pain,” as one character puts it. But perhaps out of justifiable fear of indulging a hysterical-woman stereotype, Kinberg offers a less psychological (but also less interesting) explanation—a kind of out for her and Xavier both.
Continuing the trend of picking up with the characters once a decade, Dark Phoenix jumps to 1992, though it goes much lighter on the era signifiers. (Those hoping for more alternate U.S. history may be disappointed to hear that Magneto is not involved in Bill Clinton’s election.) The timeframe is just one element the film shares with this year’s other superhero spectacular about a cosmically supercharged woman, Captain Marvel. There’s also the appearance of a race of shape-shifting aliens—they’re led here by Jessica Chastain, in what be the least engaged performance of her career—and a climactic declaration that “Emotions make you strong” that’s a little incoherent, given how much of the movie is built around the damage unchecked feelings can do. Actually, the ending of Dark Phoenix was reportedly so close to Captain Marvel’s that they completely reconfigured and reshot it. That may have been a blessing in disguise: Though familiar, the new climax features some of the cleanest, most inventive action the series has offered; after years of writing these things, Kinberg proves himself a more than suitable replacement for Singer, one-upping the disgraced director in the spectacle department.
What he can’t do is fend off the sense of fatigue that’s fallen over not just the X-Men but also the actors playing them. No one here can be said to be giving it their all—Jennifer Lawrence, whose Mystique plays a less prominent role than usual, seems to wake up exactly once, when hitting Professor X with a slam about the team name. Magneto, meanwhile, remains a terrific character, and it’s been fun watching Fassbender bring various shades of righteous rage to the role. But he’s been largely shoehorned into Dark Phoenix, which is only a Magneto story because, well, audiences like Magneto and the series has committed to reiterating his conflict with Xavier in every single sequel. It steals focus from the characters that Apocalypse barely had time to reintroduce, let alone develop: not just Turner’s anguished Jean, but the rest of the new class, including her beau and future team leader Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), anxious blue-skinned teleporter Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), weather-controlling Storm (Alexandra Shipp), and sardonic speed demon Quicksilver (Evan Peters), who gets maybe five lines.
There’s just little here that the X-Men series hasn’t shown audiences before. On top of that, it finds no real replacement for the shopworn franchise pleasures it doesn’t provide; we get no substitution for Hugh Jackman’s out-of-commission Wolverine, for the cheap prequel thrill of seeing younger versions of old characters, for a moment as sublime as the “Time In A Bottle” sequence from Days Of Future Past. It’s possible, of course, that there was a better Dark Phoenix once; the finished film, finally opening after delays probably associated with the Fox merger, bears the clear mark of post-production rejiggering. Certainly, this series, uneven and repetitive though it could be, deserved a stronger sendoff before the inevitable MCU reboot. But maybe it got that in Logan, whose final image is more powerful—and conclusive—than anything this skimpy, quasi-farewell can muster. Now there was a different kind of X-Men movie.